The Dignity Deficit of Rocking Out in Kiev

The first thought that came to mind while watching, albeit very reluctantly, a video of Secretary of State Antony Blinken “rocking out” on his guitar in a bar in Kiev was: What is wrong with these people?

A friend and fellow journalist who I forwarded the video to responded with a one word email: “Gross.”

“There’s colors on the street; Red, white and blue; People shufflin’ their feet; People sleepin’ in their shoes…”

Blinken was playing along to Neil Young’s cynical anthem of post-Reagan America, Rockin’ in the Free World, in which Young surveys the American scene and finds, beneath all the self-congratulation on our much touted “victory” in the Cold War, a kind of Hell-scape of poverty, drug abuse and despair: Think Sir Angus Deaton Deaths of Despair but as a pretty good – but by Young’s standards, not that good – rock song.

The irony of Blinken, whose career is – if nothing else – a monument to the neoliberalism that Young skewers, performing such a song hard to miss.

Obtuse? Sure.

But what makes it morally offensive is that Blinken was more or less partying on a pile of corpses – corpses from a war he himself played no small role in helping to bring about.

Our Boomer overlords (as The American Conservative’s Jude Russo pointed out yesterday) suffer from, among other maladies, a surfeit of self-importance. More striking still is what we might call a dignity deficit – particularly compared with the generation of Americans who once governed and who are now passing from the scene.

But this is true everywhere you look among the governing elite – and not just among Boomers.  Whose idea was it, for instance, to make a vacuous millennial  like Vendant Patel or, before him, a sneering imbecile like Ned Price, the face of the State Department ? Why did that staffer think it was appropriate to attend a meeting with the US Secretary of State and the Chinese Foreign Minister with purple hair?

Time was when there was a generation in power that expected certain things of themselves and of others. They behaved a certain way. They believed in certain things—as de Gaulle with France, they had a certain idea of America. Service in the national interest wasn’t simply another notch on the resume—a mere way station to a seven figure job at Google or Netflix.

Here’s an anecdote that helps reveal the distance our elites have traveled in a relatively short period of time.

As part of an oral history project for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, former US Ambassador Thomas Miller recalled that when George Shultz was Secretary of State, he would invite new ambassadors to his office for a quick chat.

As Miller recalls it: 

And hed say, OK, Mr. Ambassador or Madame Ambassador, youve passed all the tests. Youve been confirmed by the Senate and youve passed your security investigation. Youve done all the things to get the position of ambassador, but you have to pass my test. I have one more for you.” And hed take them over in the Secretarys office to where there was this massive globe, and hed say, Im going to spin the globe and I want you to put your hand on your country.” 

Shultz would tell this story, and he said, Every single one of them failed. But I let them go anyway.” Because whenever he spun the globe and hed say, I want you to put your hand on your country,” theyd always put their hand on the country that they were going out to. His point was your country is the United States.

Ask yourself: Do you think guitar hero Tony Blinken does that with newly minted Ambassadors?

Back then, there was an expectation of a certain kind of comportment – some semblance of dignity among high government officials.

Today, we get Tony and his guitar.

James W. Carden is a columnist and former adviser to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the U.S. Department of State. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Nation, The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, The Spectator, UnHerd, The National Interest, Quartz, The Los Angeles Times, and American Affairs.